This landscape painting, housed at the Valentine Museum, is my favorite image of Richmond. It was painted between 1820 and 1844 and imagines the city as an alabaster Acropolis: we see Jefferson’s capital building–a Greek temple of democracy–and the Monumental Church, here in the guise of the Pantheon (okay, I’m mixing my classical metaphors here, but you get the idea). All this overlooks the lush greenery of the James River, itself dotted with the ruins of industry (remnants of mill dams), adding a touch of Old Dominion nostalgia. In the foreground, an African American fisherman relaxes on the rocks, patiently awaiting the bounty of nature.*
It’s not a great a painting, technically speaking: the perspective is flat and the proportions are wildly off. But the artist, the otherwise unknown I. I. Nevins, captioned it with this commentary:
Richmond — Virginia
Where Men & Women are bought & Sold
like Cattle in a Market.
This I have seen.
This caustic eyewitnessing undercuts the bucolic scene: Richmond is not what it appears. It is not the shining city on a hill. It a dirty city, entangled in the nefarious business of slavery.
I take the Nevins landscape as a metaphor for American history—there is so much going on beneath the surface, and so much more that hides from us—and that people in the past have hidden from us, sometimes on purpose—that we need to uncover. This blog aims to make public some research I completed years ago on the Virginia slave trade. I hope you will find it useful. Please feel free to leave comments–I’d like to know how you are using this information in your own research, whether genealogical, historical, local, or personal. Thank you.
Assistant Professor of Writing and of History
The George Washington University
*Or perhaps lazily, in the minds of most white painters at the time. Image source: I. I. Nevins, Richmond–Virginia, 1820/1844, Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia. Reprinted in Gregg D. Kimball, “Expanding the Notion: The African American Presence in Virginia Cavalcade, 1851-1996,” Virginia Cavalcade (Autumn 1996), 94-95. Notes on the painting read, at left, “By I. I. Nevins Feb. 10. 1844,” and at right, “The original view was taken by I. I. N. Mar. 27. 1820.”
Copyright 2017 © Phillip Troutman. When using, please cite as “About,” Virginia’s Slave Trade, virginiaslavetrade.wordpress.com (your access date).